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Travel

A pilgrimage to the street corner where Hip Hop was born

@TomTaylorFO

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr addressed the March on Washington protest and decreed: “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” This was a phrase that kickstarted the gathering civil rights movement. A year later in New York City, Freedom Day led to nearly half a million teachers and pupils boycotting school in a call for integration. A decade on from the fateful Washington address, those same kids were still pushing for change, but they also had cause for celebration on the back of the progress being made. Amid this zeitgeist, Hip Hop was born on the ground floor of a big city red brick. 

While musical precursors were already well and truly in place, from Gil Scott-Heron to James Brown, it was on August 11th, 1973, that all the elements of Hip Hop coalesced into the earliest form of the genre. On this date, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue DJ Kool Herc threw a back-to-school party with his sister Cindy Campbell in the ground floor recreation room and a cultural movement was seeded from the humble beginnings of two turntables in full flow, a sanguine hum in the atmosphere and a space awash with breakdancing, graffiti artists, DJs and MCs. 

That auspicious evening Herc took to spinning the same record on two different turntables to create a longer breakbeat so that dancers could all get a share of the stage. At one point, Coke La Rock grabbed hold of a microphone and yelled out the names of his friends to the rhythm of the music. In the process, he unwittingly became perhaps the first-ever rap MC and pioneered a tradition that continues to this day. 

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However, beneath this wave of inspiration was an ever-unfurling black history. As Amiri Baraka remarked: “Music changes because the people change…but the forms are more closely related than people think. Rap is nothing but a modern blues. You listen to old Lightnin’ Hopkins or one of them old blues singers, the form is not too far from something say Tupac would use…There’s no great difference between rap and talking blues. That’s why rappers are always sampling people, because they can feel the continuity.”

In the blues explosion of the 1930s, progress and integration was finally coming to the fore following the tempestuous beginnings of the abolishment of slavery. However, the sudden economic crisis that followed, if anything, revitalised the music and the movement that it stood for. Suddenly, progressive musicians were condemned by the church simply because limited funds were being steered from collection boxes into the open guitar cases of blues performers. Rather than disavow their ‘devil’s music’ token, they embraced it. 

Much the same occurred at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue when those slipping outside of the mainstream in the crumbling 1970s embraced their identity and launched a celebration that would crystalise a new era of talking blues. In the following years, this party would spill onto the increasingly dilapidated streets that helped to galvanise the finer details and delineate the genre we now know as Hip Hop. 

As Kurtis Blow, the first rapper to score a gold single with ‘The Breaks’, would recall: “The concept was created as a tribute to all the breakers in and around the South Bronx and Harlem back in the early days of hip-hop. I wanted to do a tribute song with many breaks so that the breakers could get down and do their thing. When we danced during the breaks of a song, that was our time to go off – to do our best moves.”

(Credit: Aaron Burson)

As Promethean and singular as the track and the whole genre of rap for that matter may have seemed, there was also a profound link back to blues music in the piece, which Blow explained when he remarked: “I think it came out in 1920 or something, where a guy was talking, saying – ‘Oh, your girlfriend left you, and you lost your job and your car got towed away, well don’t worry, tomorrow the sun will shine and everything will be alright’ – good breaks and bad breaks can happen in life, but don’t worry because there’s always another tomorrow.”

Further adding: “We wanted to repeat that concept and have the many meanings within one song. We put it together and had the greatest musicians play – John Tropea on guitar, Jimmy Bralower on drums, Larry Smith, who went on to produce Run-D.M.C. and Whoodini played the bass, Denzil Miller on keyboard.” From there on the scene had a staple to work from and it has never stopped gathering momentum since. 

This grounding gave the song gravity and a sense of introspection that helped advertise the genre’s depth to the mainstream and contributed to its success. New York City was in the grips of a historic heat wave that contributed to crime and unrest during a fractious period for the city. Blow’s record seemed to dish out some street-level cognisance of this while maintaining the upbeat tenet of early hip hop, exhibiting the salve that rap could offer. 

As Blow would remark years after its release: “In the ’70s, inner-city buildings in the Bronx were burning down on one side of the street, while the kids on the other side were building a culture called hip hop.” ‘The Breaks’ represented the moment that this cultural movement usurped the status quo, and it did so in style. 

Now, as though the sorry 40-year cycle has come back around, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue has fallen into disrepair. Since 2008, the Mecca of Hip Hop has been investigated many times for illegal rentals. The living conditions are abhorrent and many even now face eviction. But the salve of art still remains and embodies the inviolable spirit of the residents in spite of the circumstances. 

In 2024, the first Universal Hip Hop Museum is set to join the many institutions in the Bronx that celebrate the transfiguring wave of the genre. It is a region abuzz with the benefits of music. From the guided tours like Hush which explore scenes like Harlem World where famed raped battles took place to 1520 itself where Grandmaster Caz, who was there on the night, happily extols, “The room couldn’t contain the energy.”

It is also here that the worlds finest Hip Hop clubs reside in the form of The Apollo Theater, Webster Hall, The 40/40 and The Village Underground. And, unlike many other cultures, perhaps because it has always been marginalised, it has protected its heritage to such a degree that the area is imbued with a sense of its own legacy and past. It is this unique detail that takes the scars of austere disrepair in the form of barbed wire, broken glass and other earthly dereliction with a sense of defiant pride that at least a sense of neighbour still presides, and creation continues in the face of adversity. 

That same notion is reflected in the sense of the warts and all society of the Bronx and Harlem at large. The cobbled-together sprawling red-brick neighbourhoods throw attractions together with the everyday for a glimpse at the artistic underbelly of the Big Apple away from the gaudy glow of the high rise world on its doorstep.